One Life. Six Words. What’s Yours?
When Hemingway famously wrote, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn,” he proved that an entire story can be told in six words. When the online magazine SMITH[i] asked readers to submit six-word memoirs, they proved a whole, real life can be told in this way too. The results are fascinating, hilarious, shocking, and moving. One of the best was:“Not quite what I was planning.” If you want to know mine-I have 6 words for you, “Ask. Me. After. The. High Holidays.”
But whatever 6 words you might choose you will, we learn that there is power in the stories we tell about our lives and what others say about us. For what we do know is that we all live, we all die, and somehow stories are told.
During these past 10 days we have asked to be written in the book of life. In that book, we remember our stories of goodness and regret. Our moments of pride and our moments of shame. Today makes us to think about the stories of our lives, as they are being written.
Who tells our story?
How is it told?
and what should we learn from the story of another person’s life?
Though it is Yom Kippur and not Passover, let me tell you about 4 people,and their story was told and the impact that I hope their lives will have as we confront the question, who will tell our story?
Let me start with Paula Dash, my high school classmate’s grandmother. She was a survivor and once said:
“People ask me, you know…I go around and tell my stories in synagogues and high schools and universities and when there is a question and answer period they ask me, how did you survive? The answer is. I don’t know myself. Probably I survived because I needed to be here to tell the story.”
In Aftermath: A Granddaugther’s story of legacy, healing, and hope[ii], Paula’s granddaughter, Allison Nazarian, reflected on this idea of stories, even when the details were far from perfect-For she not only told the story of her grandmother’s struggle, but the impact that that struggle had on Allison’s mother, who took her own life at 51. Today it is Allison who is raising 4th generation survivors and sharing the stories that they must learn. Allison wrote:
But what do the stories do…When all you have left is your story, you want it to be right and perfect and intact. My grandmother’s stories awed me….The full story doesn’t define me but without it I would not be here…. To my children, Daniel and Maya: In many ways, this is your story and the story in your cells. It’s the story that I was born to write, and the one you are now ready to read, and I hope, pass down one day.
In Allison’s telling of her family’s story, she demonstrated that love that can exist between generations, and that even after the worst atrocities, hope can prevail.
As we come together for Yizkor, on Yom Kippur, a day when we are deep in contemplation about our lives and our potential death, we wonder,
How do we know people’s stories? How do we tell people stories, and how do we ensure that our stories are told.
This year we lost many great figures, but two men died, who, in their lives, and I hope, God willing in their deaths, will continue to have an incredible mark on the Jewish community and the world.
When Elie Wiesel died this summer, the world went into mourning. As someone said to me, I never actually expected him to die. He was one of those people that you felt would live forever. Elie Wiesel fought against anti-Semitism, he fought against Holocaust denial, and because of his own personal experiences –wanted to help every group, every individual, regardless of religion, race and ethnicity, every soul who was experiencing discrimination and persecution of any kind.
In reflecting on his passing, JTS Chancellor Eisen wrote something quite powerful[iii]: Like most of his admirers, I knew Elie Wiesel (z”l) through his public persona and his books. What Elie Wiesel said was always worth hearing—. The man had a voice that was utterly unique, inside and beyond the Jewish world, and he used it to great purpose. The voice was Jewish in a way never heard before.
He had no interest in being a “Holocaust theologian,” or any kind of theologian. Nor did he seek to practice “Holocaust literature.” Rather he told stories, and in so doing kept alive the project of Judaism, the hope in humanity.
In receiving the Nobel Prize, Wiesel said[iv]
“I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment. I remember his anguish. I remember: he asked his father: “Can this be true? This is the 20th century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?” And now the boy is turning to me: “Tell me,” he asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?” And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget who the guilty are, we are accomplices… And that is why I swore never to be silent when and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stilled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs. This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I speak to you and I express to you my deepest gratitude. “
Wiesel demonstrated in his life, and in his death, that it is the stories that keeps the dreams of people alive.
The other great man was a dreamer. His name was Shimon Peres. He embodied the story of the State of Israel. He founded, built, and led it. He changed for the sake of his nation. He was an Orthodox Jews who evolved into a secular Zionist and committed himself to making peace. He learned, and lived and believed that[v]:
In other words, We have to live up to what can be, not just reflect on what was.
Rabbi Danny Gordis, in reflecting on his story[vi], summed up his impact by telling the story of the people Israel-he wrote “A century is a mark of completeness. Next year, 2017, will be a century since the British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917. ..Why would it be so wonderful to have had an alert and healthy Shimon Peres live to celebrate those anniversaries? Because he was, in many ways, the bookend to Theodor Herzl. Herzl, often called the “father of the nation,” who got the Zionist movement under way. It was David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues who brought it to fruition, and Peres was the last of Ben-Gurion’s circle still alive. Dayan, Meir, Rabin, and many others were all part of that effort, but they are gone. Peres’s abiding presence in the Israeli public eye was our last living link to that founding generation. When we lost him, there can be no denying that the defining era of Zionist toil and accomplishment has ended…. More than anything, Shimon Peres, never a terribly successful politician, has long represented the belief in possibility, the belief in Zionism coupled to realism. His generation did what it could. It is up to us to pick up this mantle and emulate their wisdom before it’s too late, lest we lose the promise of those anniversaries.”
In thinking about the stories of Dash, Weisel, and Peres, each of them endured something that was tragic and yet beautiful. For Dash, despite the horrors of the holocaust, the tragedy of losing her daughter to suicide, she allowed so many of us to learn her story; for Weisel-the unimaginable experience of the war did not end with the war but it gave him to power to speak for the most vulnerable. And Peres, Peres who tragically did not live to see his dream fulfilled, must have known that he has shown us the way forward.
And then there was Michael Levin. Michael, a twin, a Jewish kid from Philadelphia-an active USYer, went on Nativ-the gap year program-Michael, who lived his dream of making aliyah. As fellow Lone Soldier, Joel Chasnoff recounted[vii], “Michael Levin who literally climbed into a window of an IDF Induction Center to get interviewed, then talked his way into the paratroopers. In early 2006 Michael got permission to fly home for a wedding. Ever the prankster, Michael told his twin sister, Dara, to find him a giant cardboard box. Once his parents left for work, Michael came home, put the box on the front porch, wrote “FRAGILE — DO NOT OPEN WITH A KNIFE!” on the box, and had Dara seal him inside.
“Box Day was June 20,” says his mother Harriet. “Then it’s a countdown. July 15 is the date of the wedding. July 18 was the last time I saw him, at JFK. He died on August 1, 2006 during the war with Lebanon and we buried him on August 3, the ninth of Av.”
In the 10 years since their son’s death Michael’s parents, Harriets and Mark, without a shekel of government help, built a network of Lone Soldier Centers throughout Israel, providing everything from Shabbat dinners to combat vests to PTSD counseling for upwards of 6,000 lone soldiers in the IDF.
David Keren, head of the Nativ program that Michael participated in shared, “Because of Michael, there’s no one in Israel — and I mean no one — who doesn’t know what a lone soldier is.”
The Lone Soldier Center has changed the experience of lone soldiers.
“Michael’s message is not to go and die for your cause,” says David Keren. “His message is to fulfill your dream the best you can. That’s a worldwide message, not just one for the IDF or Israel. That’s Michael’s story. And how he should be remembered.”
“One evening — it was a Friday — a woman from the States came to visit Michael’s grave. When she got there she saw this kid sitting next to the grave — and he was making coffee. He had the coffeepot and his coffee cup right there on the grave.
“The woman started yelling at him. How dare he disrespect the grave of Michael Levin! ‘This is a cemetery, not a cafeteria!’ she said.
“The young man listened patiently. When she finished screaming, the kid said, in a quiet voice, “Michael and I were best friends. Every Friday night, when both of us came home from the army, we’d make a cup of coffee and talk. That’s all I’m doing. Just having a cup of coffee with my best friend. Mikey.”
These stories remind us that we will all live, we will all die, we will all have a story.
Over the past ten days we have been together in prayer, in thought, and in reflection. Since the beginning of Rosh Hashanah we have contemplated what it means to be in relationship with one another, with our families and community, and with God. And, we have contemplated what it means to be Jewish.
When people die, when their stories are told, we often confront this final question, what does it mean to be a Jew.
When Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel was asked by Tablet Magazine, what did your father want his legacy to the world to be? He responded:
He wanted to be thought of as a good Jew. That was the only standard by which he measured himself. In most conversations, it wasn’t about which president he met or any of that—all of which was meaningful to him; he valued that he had grown to play a role on the world stage. But he looked at himself as his mother and father and grandparents would have evaluated him. That was always in his mind, what would they think of him and his life and what he had made of it.
In a eulogy to Shimon Peres, Chemi Peres, his youngest child said:
You kept your promise to your beloved grandfather, when you bid him farewell on your first stop on the way to the Land of Israel. You never forgot what it means to be a Jew. And I promise you that neither will I.
Jews tells the story about being Jewish. Jews tell the stories about other Jews. And all of us tell stories that will be here long after we die? WHY?
Because we tell stories to make sure that we are living our lives as they should be lived: SO-
We must understand our 6 words.
We. Must. Value. Other. people’s. lives.
We. Need. To. Remember. Our. Stories.
Tell. Stories. Of. Those. Who. Passed.
We know that all who live are destined to die. But we achieve immortality when our stories are told. Let us commit in 5777 to telling the stories of those that we love; and living up to our potential, as the books of our lives are being written.